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How's The Water? Part 3

Just a few days ago, a section of the Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota had to be shut down after a leak that spilled close to 17,000 gallons of crude oil. Here in McLean County, petroleum is now flowing through a pipeline operated by the Canadian company, Enbridge Inc.  

Environmentalists objected to the pipeline because it crosses under three bodies of water that help provide drinking water for the city of Bloomington. In part three of our investigative series “How’s The Water?” GLT’s Judy Valente examines the safety record of Enbridge, a company responsible for one of the worst pipeline mishaps in recent years.

It’s a peaceful spot along Route 1750 North in Towanda Township. Barns rise in the distance, crows caw overhead and Money Creek winds through farm fields. This is also the spot where the new Enbridge petroleum pipeline crosses underneath Money Creek -- a fact announced by a series of posts that say “Warning.”

The pipeline location is significant because Money Creek feeds into Lake Bloomington, the main source of drinking water for the city of Bloomington.

The placement of a petroleum pipeline -- and the potential for leaks -- so close to a tributary of the city’s drinking water supply worries Angelo Capparella, conservation chair of the local John Wesley Powell Audubon Society.

“We would like to know exactly to what extent the current crossing of Money Creek meets the latest technological standards, as well as to what extent Bloomington has come up with any plans to intercept an oil spill before it gets to Lake Bloomington.” Capparella said.

Enbridge, a Canadian firm, began transporting crude oil through parts of McLean County last December.

The project, known as the Southern Access Extension, was approved by the Illinois Commerce Commission over the objections of environmental groups.

Accident prone?

There were 5,599 major pipeline mishaps across the U.S. between 1995 and 2014, resulting in 18 deaths. Enbridge was responsible for one of the worst spills in U.S. history. Bill Rau, an industrial sociologist and retired Illinois State University professor, followed the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the spill.

“They labeled Enbridge the Keystone cops of the pipeline industry because so many things went wrong.”

On July 26th 2014, a dense form of crude began gushing from an Enbridge pipeline in southwestern Michigan into Talmadge Creek near the rural town of Marshall.  The accident was triggered by a six and a half foot tear in a corroded carbon steel pipeline. This particular line carried a form of tar sands oil called diluted bitumen.

“That’s the tar sands stuff that during the summer is thick as molasses and in the winter is tough as a hockey puck. They have to cut it with a natural gas liquid so they can actually move it though a pipeline," Rau said. "Now there are a whole series of problems with bitumen. They need more pressure to move it through a pipeline which puts stress on the pipeline. It’s gritty because it’s got sand in it so the wear and tear on the pipeline is greater.”

Three different shifts of Enbridge employees monitoring the line from a control center in Canada noticed a decrease in pressure. But the workers chalked up the aberration to a false alarm. Seventeen hours passed. Enbridge finally shut down the line when a local utility worker called the company after spotting oil in a wetlands area.

Eventually, nearly a million gallons spread along a 35-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River, home to 102 species of fish. Area residents were evacuated for three days because of the hazardous gases that were released in the air. And about a hundred fifty residents had to be permanently relocated.

Just 10 days before the accident, Enbridge vice president for U.S. operations, Richard Adams, had touted the company’s safety policies before a Congressional subcommittee.

Lesson learned

“That was one of the darkest days in Enbridge’s 60-plus years as a pipeline operator,” said Jennifer Smith, stakeholder engagement manager for Enbridge. “There have been a number of lessons learned from that incident not only in construction and design standards but also in how we operate generally.”  

The National Transportation Safety Board found that corrosion in the Michigan pipeline led to the leak, and that Enbridge had postponed fixing the line. Since the Kalamazoo spill, Smith says Enbridge has spent $4.4 billion to improve staffing, equipment, training and materials. It is using a stronger form of steel as well as more effective anti-corrosion coating inside its Illinois pipeline. Smith said Enbridge is now a new and safer company.

“The pipeline there, the Southern Access pipeline we are using, has the latest technology in terms of our coating that’s being used. These are one-hundred percent steel pipelines. They have an epoxy coating. There’s been not only a number of technological improvements but also design standards and procedural changes,” Smith said.

Seeking designation

In addition to Money Creek, the Enbridge pipeline also crosses two other Bloomington drinking water sources: the Mackinaw River and one of the Mackinaw’s feeder streams, lower Buck Creek. Enbridge says it will treat all three bodies of water as “high consequence areas.” This will insure more intensive monitoring, maintenance and inspections. But that was not always Enbridge’s position.

Initially, Enbridge maintained only the Mackinaw River qualified as a “high consequence” or environmentally sensitive area as defined by federal code.  

Under pressure from local environmentalists, including the late Anne McGowan, former director of the Ecology Action Center, and more recently Capparella and Rau, Enbridge eventually agreed that lower Buck Creek also qualified for more extensive monitoring.

Enbridge still maintains Money Creek does not qualify under the code, but the company says it voluntarily is treating Money Creek as if it were a high consequence area. Capparella says he’s not reassured.

“We have been urging for years that our local officials petition the federal agency to have the Money Creek crossing officially designated as a high consequence area,” he said. “It’s not a panacea, but it certainly ups the technological and other attention paid to any potential oil spill that could affect Bloomington’s water supply.”

Capparella says Money Creek is not only a drinking water resource, it’s also increasingly a refuge for a wildlife.

“We have some nice marshland that’s formed and mud flats that migrating birds find interesting. So we hate to see not only damage occurring to the water supply, but also to an area used quite a bit by our native wildlife.”

Leak detection equipment

The McLean county pipeline is but a portion of a project that begins at a terminal in Livingston County and extends to a storage hub in Patoka in southern Illinois. There it meets up with another line that travels to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.  

The company says the pipeline is currently transporting light crude oil, but is designed to transport diluted bitumen as well, the kind of oil involved in the Kalamazoo River spill.

The oil carried in the pipeline is used mainly to produce gasoline, diesel fuel, plastics and a host of consumer products from heart valves to lipstick. Much of the Enbridge oil is eventually shipped for sale overseas – a point not lost on environmentalists like Rau.

“This has got nothing to do with American energy independence," he said.

Rau also says he’s concerned about Enbridge’s leak detection equipment. Enbridge, like most pipeline companies, uses what’s called an internal leak detection system.

“The internal systems are insensitive, which means they can’t detect small but consequential leaks. They tend to be slow and unreliable,” Rau said.

Rau noted that leaks of just one percent of could spew 3,000 barrels into one of the McLean County waterways in single day. External leak detectors, by contrast, can pick up on leaks as small as a tenth of a barrel --and quickly.

“External leak detection systems mimic the human senses, eyesight, hearing, sensing, smelling,” Rau said. “They can pick up on as little as a tenth of a barrel of leaking oil and can do so anywhere from 15 seconds to a minute.”

Why aren’t these systems used more widely? “The reason they don’t do it is it costs more money,” Rau said. “Pipeline industries are operating on high financial hurdles. They have to have a return on investment in five years or less.”

Bob Yehl took over as Bloomington’s water director last year, long after the state approved the pipeline. He said the city doesn’t have direct oversight over the project, but that he has questioned Enbridge officials on their safety procedures.

“I think any time you cross a pipeline from a watershed or reservoir, there is concern there,” Yehl said. “I can tell you we’ve walked through their plan and process.  It appears they are following what needs to done. They’re looking into additional measures for external detection to see if they can’t do a research and development project to work with the city to monitor it even above and beyond what they are required to do.”

In addition, Smith, the company spokeswoman, says Enbridge has placed valves near the water crossings that will enable it to shut down the pipeline in the event of a leak – something local environmentalists had advocated.

“It will automatically close and isolate that section of pipeline within a matter of minutes,” Smith said. “We monitor our pipelines 24/7, 365 days a year through various sensors, including pressure monitors and volume meters that are always checking to make sure the volumes we are transporting are matching as they are hitting certain points along the line.”

Enbridge has offered to provide the city with a $30,000 grant to purchase its own external leak detection equipment. Yehl says this monitoring equipment would only be placed at Money Creek. He added that his staff has not yet had time to apply for the grant.

'Foolish trade'

Victoria Harris, a member of the McLean County Board, says both the city and county need to be more proactive.

“We are talking about irreparable damage to the things that are essential to life. And what’s the game plan here?” Harris asked. “I do think we can retrofit some things to get the best leak detection system we can have and do much more training. I’ve said it before, trading water for oil is a foolish trade.”

Enbridge and farmers

The pipeline not only crosses the three bodies of water, it traverses about 120 private farm properties as well.

“The flags mark the places where field tiles have been replaced and repaired from them going through with their construction process," said Mark Hines, whose farm is not far from Cheney’s Grove Road in Bloomington. Surveying the pipeline location from his truck, he says he has no qualms about having allowed Enbridge to use seven of his 85 acres.

“There’s no benefit to them not maintaining their pipeline to the best of their ability. It’s to their advantage to be good stewards,” Hines said.

Enbridge was able to reach agreements with about 100 farmers like Hines. The farmers received compensation ranging from $3,000 to $67,000 depending on the number of acres involved, according to documents filed in McLean County Circuit Court.

Fewer than 20 farmers have yet to settle with Enbridge. In those cases, the company obtained a court order to take possession of the acreage they needed through eminent domain. That’s a practice usually invoked only for public roads or public utility work. The company also got McLean County Circuit Court Judge Paul Lawrence to agree to give it what’s called a “quick take order.” That allowed Enbridge to begin digging on the farmers’ land even if there was no signed agreement.

Smith, the Enbridge spokeswoman, described the pipeline as a public service that needed to move forward with or without the farmers’ cooperation.

“The service we are providing to residents not only of Illinois but the Midwest, we all benefit from. About 75 percent of crude oil refined and processed and used in the Midwest and Illinois starts out as crude oil transported on an Enbridge pipeline,” Smith said.

Tim Killian, one of the holdouts, stands on what’s known as the Stuckey and Hudson Blacktop southwest of Lexington, surveying his corn field.

“It’s been owned by the family for 70 years or more. It’s a way of life,” Killian said.

According to Killian, the compensation Enbridge offered farmers did not reflect the fair value of their land.

“Some people took what they were offered. Why? Because the pipeline company exhausted them,” he said. “Some of them were older people, some of them are veterans and they told them this is for the betterment of the country.”

Smith says Enbridge tried to reach “amicable” agreements.

“We want to have relationships with these landowners. We’re going to be operating a pipeline on their property for decades to come, so it’s in interest of both sides to start that relationship off right,” Smith said.

Killian sees it differently. He said Enbridge workers were supposed to replace the top soil that was dug up during construction, but ended up mixing highly productive top soil with more sandy, rocky substrata soil.

“They have definitely altered the means of that soil,” Killian said. “This is deep soil that is very productive. I had a soil scientist out here and he said this is class A soil, some of the best you can get.”

Killian said Enbridge barred farmers from some meetings.

“They had a closed door meeting at the department of agriculture where they had a scientist from Kansas State University and one from Illinois State University and no farmers or landowners were allowed to attend that meeting,” Killian said. “What we got out of it from the Department of Agriculture is that these farmers might as well go on vacation for six weeks because their soil will never be the same it was.”

Responsive to farmers

Smith says Enbridge paid close attention to the farmer’s environmental concerns.

“We are sensitive to the environment and to the land that we’re constructing in. We have not only oversight and permitting on construction of the pipeline, we have what’s called an agricultural mitigation agreement with the Illinois Department of Agriculture which is a minimal commitment of how were are going to treat and restore the land,” she said. 

Hines, the Bloomington farmer, says he expects it will take five year before the acreage where the pipeline is buried becomes fully productive again. Killian says he doesn’t know if his acreage will ever be as productive as it once was.

“The soil will hopefully have some productive value when we plant next spring,” Killian said. “We will have to measure it and see where we are on it.”

He says he is also concerned about what will happen if his heavy farm equipment should accidently damage the pipeline.

“I’m always concerned about the liability,” Killian said. “We have a small intermittent creek not a few hundred feet from farm. Where is that petroleum going to go? Down that creek, and within a few miles it will be in Mackinaw River.”

Environmentalists like Bill Rau say a mishap when light crude is flowing through the pipeline would be hazardous enough, but a leak involving diluted bitumen would be much worse.

“Bitumen is heavier than water and sinks to the bottom. That’s what happened in Michigan,” Rau explained.

In that case, it would be difficult to clear the oil by skimming, burning or filtering it, as has been done to in other large spills. An accident involving diluted bitumen would require a long and costly clean-up project, as it did along the Kalamazoo River.

Capparella of the Audubon Society says fumes from a bitumen spill would also pose a hazard.

“It tends to have one fraction that volatilizes and forms dangerous stuff if it goes into the atmosphere, and the other part goes to the low water level so you can’t skim it off as you are used to seeing in other kinds of oil spills,” Capparella said.”

Emergency response

Both Rau and Capparella have called on government officials to insure that first responders, police and fire officials, receive training in how to react to a spill. About a quarter of all leaks are first detected by people living or working near a pipeline.

“The fear is if they don’t have state of the art leak detection equipment as well as excellent training at the local level so people who may see a problem can report it, because most spills are actually reported by local residents and first responders,” Capparella said.

Enbridge says it is willing to provide on line training for first responders, but insists the likelihood of a mishap is remote. The company says it has delivered nearly 15 billion barrels of oil in the past decade, without incident, and does not want to face another billion dollar clean up. Environmentalists insist a mishap is but a matter of time.

  What's in the Water?

Credit Judith Valente / WGLT
ISU professor of geology Dr. Catherine O’Reilly (left) and lab technician Victoria Heath analyze drinking water samples from Normal and Bloomington at the university's Laboratory of Environmental Analysis

Ever wonder what's in your drinking water? WGLT had the Laboratory of Environmental Analysis at Illinois State University analyze 10 samples of drinking water -- five each from Normal and Bloomington. The samples included water from two public drinking fountains at ISU in addition to well water from a Bloomington home.

The analysis showed Bloomington's tap water had 40 times the amount of nitrates as Normal's water, but Normal's water was much higher in ammonia and chloride. What does it all mean? GLT's Judy Valente spoke with the lab's director, ISU geologist Catherine O'Reilly.

Listen to the interview

Read the lab report